Category Archives: contemporary classical

Jonah Parzen-Johnson – “Remember When Things Were Better Tomorrow”

Jonah Parzen-Johnson’s music is an eclectic mix of soulful, street-corner solo sax melodies, gritty multiphonics and microtonal excursions against a backdrop of analog synths and various effects. His tone is impeccably clean one second and drenched in layered waves of pulsating echoes. He plays both with electronics and against them, sometimes using them as extensions of his horn, while at other times he’s using them to create dense contrapuntal layers.

Across his album “Remember When Things Were Better Tomorrow” these incredibly complex and vibrant ideas take shape within each track. Each song is a journey with its own twists and turns, and its own highs and lows. Contemplative one second, resolute the next. In the video for “I Wrote a Story About You, Without You” we get a clear visual analogue to the sounds. Life rushes around, filtered through clandestine security cameras in downtown Chicago and New York; soon its seen through the frantic movements of someone desperately searching google maps. At first the track’s opening soliloquy begins an ascending scale that slowly speeds up, is mixed with bright and reverberant harmonies, and then takes off into the realm of something a little more synthetic and frantic. Parzen-Johnson’s circular breathing, prolonging lines well beyond a single breath, only adds to the tension and propulsion. “I Wrote a Story…” captures a sort of sentimentality, but also an uneasiness, a malaise; perhaps something we all feel as we go about our daily lives, trying to remember what it is that we were planning on doing, and why it is that we aren’t doing it. We go on about our daily business anyway, trying to figure a way out.

That sentimentality, that same subtle melancholy is also captured on the album’s closing track, “On the Way Home.” Stripped of any electronics, we are treated to an extended melody with absolutely brilliant phrasing and control. Each small break between the phrases has me listening closer, waiting, and hoping that there will be more to come. Eventually, of course, the last phrase comes and goes and we are perhaps left feeling a lack of resolution, a wanting. Or maybe it’s that we are left in deep contemplation.

The entire album is brilliant, and just came out earlier this week on Primary Records. Parzen-Johnson, a Chicago native by the way, is out on an extensive tour in support of “Remember When Things Were Better Tomorrow.” You can find dates below the video and you can also check out his website in order to get the album as a CD, digital download, or on limited 150g vinyl.

06/05/15 Seattle, WA Cafe Racer
06/06/15 San Fran, CA Center For New Music
with The Steven Lugerner Octet
06/08/15 Sacramento, CA Luna’s Cafe
Time: 7:30pm. Nebraska Mondays
06/09/15 Los Angeles, CA Moryork Gallery
06/11/15 Chicago, IL Elastic Arts
06/12/15 Milwaukee WI Frank’s Power Plant
w/Devin Drobka, Barry Paul Clark, and Jay Mollerskov
06/13/15 Madison, WI Bright Red Studios
06/15/15 Minneapolis, MN Ice House
w/ JT’s Jazz Implosion
06/16/15 St Louis, MO Foam
06/17/15 Louisville, KY Dreamland
06/19/15 Greensboro, NC New York PIzza
with Xelos Verv and Sun Swan
06/20/15 Durham, NC The Shed
with Polyorchard
06/21/15 Asheville, NC The Mothlight
06/24/15 Charlottesville The Garage
06/25/15 Washington DC 453 Florida Ave NW
06/27/15 Philadelphia, PA The First Banana with Accretionist, Daniel Fishkin, and LXV
06/30/15 Cambridge, MA Lilypad
07/01/15 Montreal QC La Passe Canada
07/02/15 Providence RI 186 Carpenter Street

Remembering Claudio Abbado

Claudio Abbado
Claudio Abbado

Symphony No. 9/IV


I’m going to take some time today to write about something that I have been wanting to write about for a long time now. I think that it is time to start introducing some posts that aren’t about varying levels of obscure-guitar driven plugged-in music. Today, though unfortunate given the circumstances, seems like the perfect day to start introducing some non-indie rock writing.

When I started college I found myself working toward a degree in music composition. Now, when I say that I “found myself” doing it, I mean that one minute I hadn’t been involved in music at all and then the next minute I was in a program with a slew of serious musicians that knew far more than me about everything. The composition students in particular were known for their breadth of knowledge (as they should be), and someone like me, with little to no knowledge of concert music, found themselves listening to anything that they could get their hands on in order to keep up with the rest of the crowd.

One work that kept coming up time and again was Alban Berg’s opera “Wozzeck.” For those of you that don’t know, and I’m not about to give a synopsis here, the opera is incredibly dense, complex and difficult for all involved. As it would turn out, this was maybe the first opera that I ever connected with. I’m still not particularly interested in opera much to this day, but there was something about Berg’s that really grabbed me. As I watched on VHS in the library, I noticed something interesting about the conductor. During the interludes, since the camera had nothing on stage to focus on, it panned through the pit, and fixed itself on the conductor. As I watched him work I noticed that he never for a second looked down to glance at the score. As I kept watching I got a quick look at his podium as the camera angle changed and I noticed that there was no score even on the podium at all. At that point in time I couldn’t even fathom the possibility that someone would be conducting anything from memory, let along a piece of music as dense and complex as “Wozzeck.”

I kept watching that performance. Come to find out it is the preeminent performance of the opera. It’s always the one that people refer to, and for what it’s worth, it is up in its entirety on youtube. As I watched and grew as a musician, I slowly realized that there was a lot more to conducting than simply memorizing the score (which hardly any of them even do. Abbado was particularly gifted), their job is not just of interpretation, but of working with the musicians day-in, day-out for months and months ahead of the performance. They shape the lines, possibly change dynamics (or sometimes more) in the score in order to bring out details in the music that they find important and interesting, they decide on tempi, how drastic any changes in dynamic are going to be, they cue instruments during the performance, they are in charge of the action, everything, everyone is literally taking their cues from the conductor.

There was something about the emotive power of that opera that really got me. It’s an extremely intense piece. Later, when I discovered the music of Gustav Mahler, I found myself drawn once again to the recordings of his symphonies that were conducted by Abbado. Mahler’s works are all intensely colorful, descriptive, emotional, and powerful in general, and Abbado was, in my opinion, able to bring out all of those qualities more effectively than any other conductor that I have heard that has recorded Mahler’s works. There was just something about Simon Rattle, Leonard Bernstein and even Bruno Walter’s (who worked with Mahler) recordings that weren’t able to capture the same magic as his.

Listening to Mahler’s 9th Symphony today, my favorite work of his, I could hear all the beautiful contrasts, the delicate shading of timbre, the drastic shifts in tempo and dynamics and in articulation. There are parts in the middle of the first movement that are so transformative one can’t help but pay closer attention. Mahler’s works, due in part to their length, are very immersive works, and nobody helped the listener to become more immersed in these great works than Claudio Abbado. Just listen to the ending of the last movement of Mahler’s 9th symphony with him at the helm. The diminuendo at the end is executed so perfectly, with such delicacy and precision as to transport the listener, to nearly physically move them. I know that I can’t help but sit in silence for at least a little while after hearing that movement in particular come to a close.

I have listened to many of his recordings over the years, I have grown up as a musician with him, and I learned so much about what it means to interpret a work because of him. I was truly saddened today when I heard of his passing and there will be a large void in his place that won’t soon be filled. He was great for reasons that far exceed my own personal feelings, Abbado was a champion of new music when there were very few people that supported the avant-garde. He conducted orchestras through the works of Schoenberg, Stockhausen, Nono, Maderna, as well as the works of Verdi and Rossini. He was programming experimental music when none of the other big orchestras were doing so. He insisted that concert repertoire is not simply for the upper-class, and would bring his orchestra to factories to play for the people. He worked with children to foster a love for the arts and to encourage their interest in music. Claudio Abbado was a man that was interested in making connections and sharing a universal language.

For these reasons and many more, I think that it is important to take a step back and realize the contribution that he has made to our culture. Take a listen to the final movement of Mahler 9 above (all 26 minutes of it), and check out the video of him conducting the interlude to “Wozzeck” with the Vienna State Opera in 1987 as well. His obituary can be read here.

Album that you need to hear: Pink Mountain – “Untitled”

Pink Mountain - "Untitled"
Pink Mountain – “Untitled”

Released April 28, 2009 Pink Mountain’s “Untitled” 2nd album represents an intriguing and, in my opinion, inviting blend of contemporary composition and improvisation techniques within the rock idiom. Despite its unique qualities the album remains woefully unknown and underrated, unappreciated and overall unlistened to since its release. To that end, when it was released only 500 copies of the vinyl were produced, and it remains available from Sick Room Records as of this writing.

I first learned of this album through Signal To Noise magazine, which is a phenomenal publication for any of those that may be interested in experimental and otherwise unknown music. That magazine has dubbed itself “The biannual journal of improvised, experimental and unusual music” and as far as I know it is the best of its kind. Though subscription service is currently suspended I truly hope that they begin publishing regularly again. Times are tough in the publishing industry, and I’m sure that publishing a magazine with such a specific target audience is even tougher.

It was in issue #55 for Fall 2009, to be specific, that I came to learn of the existence of Pink Mountain in a piece entitled “They’re Only in it for the Music.” Both that title as well as the subheading that states that they have “zero hope for mass appeal” summoning the specter of Frank Zappa. Though their music is a similar mix of art-rock there are many notable differences. For starters, where Zappa was influenced by and mimicked (to death) the compositional styles of Stravinsky and Varese, Pink Mountain are a bit more current with their influences. They work with contemporary, American influences; influences that don’t sound like they originate in the downtown scene of New York, but rather lie with the improv techniques of the West Coast, specifically the experimentalism and improvisatory techniques that come out of Mills College in Oakland. The album explores heavy use of noise and free form improv over layers of tight foundational work that cycles regularly in shifting tectonic plates of polymeter and minimalist repetition.

I remember playing this album for a friend that’s pretty into “out” jazz, and he remarked nearly immediately that he couldn’t handle it. He said that it was “a bit too far for me…I don’t know if I can get into this.” Perhaps it was the distortion, or the way that the album opens with near chaos that continues to build, that got him, or rather didn’t get him.

There are tracks that are more to one side of the experimental-rock rift and those that swing far to the other side. And, as expected, there are those moments that manage to bridge that gap.

“Foreign Rising” is a clever renaming of the James Tenney piece “For Anne (rising)” that makes use of a Shepard Tone, which is an aural illusion that sounds like a continual ascent that could potentially go on forever. Think of it like the sound equivalent of one of those barbershop poles where the stripe seems to continue to rise out of the bottom for as long as you look at it. Of course this is a re-imagining of the original electronic piece by Tenney that is a lot more stripped down than. Pink Mountain adds a bit of an accelerando, jazz drumming that grows continually more complex as the piece continues and some other ringing harmonics, and various other buzzing or otherwise distorted sounds (and vocals) over top.

Foreign Rising

“Fine Print” screeches and squeals over a rock-solid drumbeat with woodwinds that ties the end of the album to the beginning , making the cloud of atmospheric noise a contorting leitmotif of the work as a whole. The lyrics of “Fine Print” are concerned with the inner non-workings of the music industry, which are then combined with instrumentation and composition practices that eschew most of the principles of rock music writing. The breakdown in the song features the a ragged bass sound with drums that are locked into a constantly shifting 7/8 that is in some respects rock steady, while simultaneously it is anything but.

It’s a diatribe against the commercial music industry in every way possible. Basically, the entire album is, but it doesn’t make a point of addressing it overtly until this song. In a way it is like the band is saying, “yes, we are aware of the limited potential for recognition with this album, and this is how much we don’t care.” The song aligns them philosophically with Steve Albini’s famous tirade (that I reference every chance that I get).

Speaking more to the polyrhythmic structure that is present throughout most of the songs, “Howling Fantods” (an “Infinite Jest” reference no doubt. It matches nicely with the Pynchon nod in the title of their song “V.,” a creepy instrumental with what sounds like bowed cymbals (?) and tense, brittle harmonics. And their music matches that post-modern mindset, sudden shifts of texture, several layers of action, the re-working of concepts [re-packaging, if you will] and the steady, fluid mixture of high-art with low in that rock and jazz influences are thrown in a blender with well thought out contemporary classical compositional techniques [prepared piano, Shepard Tone, different levels of metric borrowing/time streams a la Elliott Carter, and the list goes on) marches dutifully into the prog realm with its additive rhythm that appends an increasing number of strong beats to the end of a 7/8 measure, stretching out the phrases before once again collapsing into a controlled chaos. The moments that don’t feature that persistent additive rhythm stretch time in their own way by at first dropping any sense of beat altogether, while hinting at the motive melodically, and later slowing time in a complex metric modulation.

Howling Fantods

The most obvious and aurally shocking element that Pink Mountain puts to work is the mind-warp pulse shifts of “Eternal Halflife” and its reprise “Eternal Shelflife” where a steady 4/4 meter with the usual (for rock tunes) strong accents on 2 and 4 starts off unsurprisingly with a clear texture of understated drums with a seemingly half-hearted guitar that sits on one chord, non-chalantly strumming eighth notes. After two measures, easily enough time  such that one’s mind settles into passive acceptance, the guitar shifts upwards while the drums subdivide each half-note into 5, giving the impression of a tempo increase, but that is only another illusion (they seem to be making a theme of aural illusions on this album what with the Shepard Tone that I have mentioned a few other times and now this jarring metric shift that feels like a tempo shift but it isn’t. I would classify this as maybe a form of different simultaneous tempo streams), as the snare drum continues to accent beats 2 and 4. The pattern is then repeated but with each bar divided into 3 this time, seemingly slowing the piece. It would be an understatement to say that this is simply an interesting phenomenon to experience. The first time that I heard it I came to the realization that I had never experienced anything like that in music before. And that is quite a rare circumstance indeed when you can actually experience something in music that you have never heard before.

Eternal Halflife

The main meter shifting section of “Eternal Halflife” where beats 2 and 4 are accented and the upper voice borrows from other meters. (notes are only to indicate rhythm. Quarter notes are kick drum and snare while eighth notes represent the hi-hat)

The band does play with tempo and rhythm across the entire album, so much so that there is no point of reference for what “normal” might mean. Even in moments where there isn’t anything particularly interesting (that’s, of course, a relative term) happening, say for example in certain parts of “Thee Red Lion.” The texture in that track is sparse for the most part, but the band takes the opportunity to really lean back in the bar. They are pushing that meter back and making those bars last as long as they can without changing the number of beats in a measure and also without changing the tempo. To my ear this element of their playing makes that track sound even heavier that it would be if it was played square.

Perhaps that is one of the reasons that I am so attracted to this album. One of the reasons that I continually go back to it. Funny tidbit: Sam Coomes, the singer here, is also in the (comparatively much more well known) band Quasi (another band that I have talked about ad nauseum on this blog) with Janet Weiss. Janet was the drummer for Sleater-Kinney, Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, and now Wild Flag (in addition to Quasi). The point is that I have known of all of those bands, except for Quasi, which I only came to know after becoming very familiar with Pink Mountain. I tend to do things backward sometimes.

The mixture of stylistic approach on this album reaches far beyond the classification of rock or jazz or classical. It combines elements of all of those things in a fairly tight package. There isn’t one song that showcases a single one of those elements, as they are all mixed evenly throughout. As I have mentioned before on this blog, one of my goals in writing and in studying music is to show that the categories and the classifications that we heap onto music are, for the most part, meaningless. The intermingling of elements is an important part of the post-modern aesthetic, and is showcased on many albums of the past ten years. Pink Mountain’s “Untitled” is one such album that not only defies classification, but seemingly obliterates it.

Album review: Colin Stetson – "New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges"

Colin Stetson is a saxophonist that is clearly out of his mind.

Sax players, in my experience, are a divided lot. They usually either stay on the side of jazz or classical and never the twain shall meet. More accurately, they will stick with party lines and immediately show their loyalty to their chosen side by hating the other group with every ounce of expendable energy that they have. This means that any energy that is left over after obsessive study of all things saxophone is dedicated to speaking down to the other side. I feel as though Colin Stetson may be an exception to that rule, or maybe he just didn’t get the memo. He clearly doesn’t think that there is a need to take a side. Perhaps he is creating a new side, because his music sounds like nothing I have ever heard before. If all contemporary composition for the sax sounded like this I would actually pay attention to contemporary compositions for the sax.

His music is a non-stop barrage of sound that searches for, and finds, ways to make a unilinear instrument such as his sound polyphonic. It’s not that it just sounds that way, it is. Stetson employs not only a complex melodic line that pops out over a sea of supporting, textural, notes; he uses everything that his instrument and he himself physically has to offer. Percussive key clicks serve as not only drums of sorts, but mimic the pitch and timbre characteristics of the pizzicato plucking of a double bass. Multiphonics, or complex clusters of pitches sounded simultaneously as a result of overblowing certain key combinations, help to not only thicken the sound, but provide unique colors to certain parts of a song.

The circular breathing technique, which is essentially breathing out while breathing in concurrently, means that there doesn’t have to be a single break in his melodic line. Ever. For minutes at a time the notes just flow. It’s remarkable.

Colin Stetson - "New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges"

While all of these things are great, they don’t make a song in and of themselves. All of these things would mean so much less if they weren’t coming from a virtuosic performer of such a high caliber.

“A Dream of Water” takes off like a rocket and doesn’t let up. Melodies are hidden inside other melodies, weaving in and out of each other. There is a constant flurry of septuplets rolling through the air while a plain-spoken voice enters, noting observations and asking some questions: “There were those who knew only the sound of their own voices, there were those who knew the rules, there were those who freed their bodies…what was it? What was it?” The voice doesn’t simply make the track more accessible to a certain extent but also serves to haunt the listener, making the pervasive rapid notes carry more weight.

With “Home” the percussive techniques are amped up while the general mood is considerably more sedate. Colin sings through his instrument, humming in a way that transforms the saxophone partially into a theremin in its thin and straight tone. He also sings on the track “Judges”, but there it is a bit more like a growl or a choked scream. His ability to circular breathe isn’t just used to crank out a million notes without stopping, but also to lay down a single foundational pitch like the flat bass pedal tone that remains throughout “Lord I just can’t keep from crying” while a soulful spiritual is sung over top. His inhaling can be heard while the bass note continues to grow louder and more intense while this time the sax seems to take on the sound of a didjeridoo.

An entire ensemble of percussive tongue slaps, key clicks, and growls are summoned in “Red Horses” while “The righteous wrath of an honorable man” is pure blazing virtuosity, fingers flying all over across (this time) silent keys. The notes pop and squeal, leaping out of the furiously fast line. The work on this piece is truly awe inspiring. Starting from nowhere and then soaring for two and a half minutes at breakneck speed before abruptly stopping. The end comes suddenly as a car slamming into a brick wall at 80 miles an hour with nary a note out of place.

The album closes with a track that layers multiphonics atop an endless pedal tone, just as in “Lord I just can’t keep from crying”. Here, however, multiphonics slowly turn to a growl as the volume grows, sounding like something between an overdriven guitar and a siren, until eventually the track slowly fades away.

One of the many great things about this album is that Stetson’s bag of tricks doesn’t grow tired by albums end. His technique is flawless and his songs are multifaceted. There is just so much to listen to and so much to listen for. On the one hand it’s great to just sit back and listen to all of the notes fly by in some of the tracks. Another listen and one can begin to hear the different melodies weaving through each other; another ten listens can easily be spent marveling at how he put this all together without recording over himself a million times.

This album has me spellbound in amazement at his superhuman abilities. “New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges” is quite an astoundingly daring, creative and virtuosic masterpiece of an album.

[audio:|titles=From no part of me could I summon a voice] [audio:|titles=Home] [audio:|titles=The righteous wrath of an honorable man]